Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Criticism and the Artistic Self

When my REAL FLUTE video project launched on youtube I received thanks and praise by flutists worldwide, but also some pretty sharp criticism from a few flutists who disagreed with my methods and approach. There was a particular thread on the James Galway Flute Chat on yahoo groups where I was the subject of some pretty harsh criticism on everything from my credentials to my playing to my teaching content to my teaching style. After watching these emails for several days I finally responded. Those making the posts were unaware that I was reading their posts all along (word to the wise: if you want to say something about me online, I'll probably read about it because I always get emails from my youtube and myspace friends when I am the topic of flute talk--so just assume I will read what you write). Anyway, many of you asked to see my two part response to these posts so I will copy them here. After posting my responses I received apologies from some of the members on that chat and have subsequently turned conflict into friendship. Isn't THAT something?!

Subject:    [Galway-Flute-Chat] Re: Audio quality / The Nina effect
Date:         May 29, 2007 5:34:59 PM EDT


Dear Flute Friends:

Hello.  What a weekend! I have enjoyed reading your many thoughtful comments on my youtube teaching videos. Yes, I have been here from the start (the flute world is too small to think that I would not receive notices from several friends about this thread within minutes of the first posting). I decided to quietly observe -- not wanting to interfere because I wanted to see where this would lead. And yes, at times I did think that some of the comments were barking mad!  But now that Sir James himself has entered the discussion, I must reveal myself and attempt to answer some of the questions many of you have posed and address some criticisms as best as I am able. This will be a long post – forgive me and keep in mind I am essentially responding to many many pages of previous posts.

But first, since this is a Galway forum and it is my first post, please allow me to indulge in sharing some of my thoughts on Sir James.

Like all of you, I am a tremendous admirer of Sir James’ playing and teaching.
But this was not always the case.
As a much younger flutist, I followed a trend typical among young (na├»ve), American conservatory flutists at the time to criticize Sir James and “turn up our noses” at his style. He was the flutist who played Pink Panther, we were the flutists working hard to be “serious.”  Believe it or not, it was uncool to like James Galway and he was criticized at every turn.

Then one day I heard his recording of the Quantz Concertos and it was the most dazzling flute playing I have ever heard (the Cd is a treasured part of my collection to this day, if you don’t own it—get it!).  In an instant I realized that all our criticisms had been unjustified, largely influenced by jealousy and negative mob psychology.  Here was an artist who could move seamlessly and magnificently from Mancini to Mozart, and in the process he made the world love the flute. If anything, we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. I also realized that there was much I could learn from him.

Since then I have attended at least two of his masterclasses and seen him perform on multiple occasions. Guess what? There were performances that were not technically perfect and could have been subject to malicious criticisms…BUT there were also moments of pure poetry in each performance, and it is the poetry that matters! Each time I hear him I am more resolved in my admiration.  In my observations, Sir James never lets go of his true self as an artist. 

Others with talent may have doubted their own musical identity in an attempt to try to please everyone. But doing so can only lead to failure, for it is impossible to please everybody all of the time. At a certain point, artists need to believe in their authentic musical selves and not be tempted to try to please everybody.  It takes a tremendous amount of strength to do this so many people only perform in controlled bubbles and never expose themselves to potential criticism.  Others quit.

When I began this youtube video project I knew that I was exposing myself to criticism on an international scale. After all, if an artist like Sir James can receive criticism, then I most certainly will!! And let’s face it, flutists are not exactly known for being a kind, supportive bunch, right? But I often thought about Sir James as a role model and decided to take the risk! Are you?

My video project encourages ALL flutists to participate and upload videos that we can then share through the “video response” function.  Very few have accepted my offer, and those who have are all amateurs.  (note, this has changed since May, 2007. I now have videos posted from all over the world).

Having said that, let me preface this by stating the obvious: I am not James Galway. I am NOT trying to compare myself to James Galway, I am only influenced by James Galway. I have found it amusing that some of the posts on this thread have compared me to James Galway—an honor really, to fall short of such a mark, don’t you agree? So my first thought is: why in God’s name are people comparing me to Galway? The reason is that there are only three flutists in the world right now who are brave enough to post comprehensive flute teaching videos with the wide reaching media outlet of youtube: myself, Jennifer Cluff, and Sir James. As a consequence, we are compared. Of the three, I am the only one who posts unedited performance videos as well (although there is one nice performance of Galway on the larrykrantz page—but Sir James’s playing is so readily available it hardly seems necessary to post on youtube). [correction, there are several performance videos by Galway, but again, he hardly needs to establish his performance credentials!].

In carefully reviewing the comments I have received from you this weekend, there are 
four areas I would like to address:
1.my playing
2.my credentials
3.the content of my teaching
4.the style of my teaching

My playing: Some do not like my playing.  Many do.  Some like my playing some of the time and some do not like my playing…some of the time.  Is there a musician alive for whom this is not true? I cannot “talk someone into” liking my playing.  You will form your own judgments.  My playing on youtube has reached an enormous new audience. In a few months I have had 25,000 views, over 140 subscribers and literally hundreds of emails and comments from viewers who were touched by my playing and inspired to keep playing themselves. Many musicians have written to me to say that my philosophy of REAL FLUTE is liberating. I always play from the heart and with a total commitment of energy and ability. I strive to play outside my comfort zones expressively.   I also understand that all artists of quality are constantly adapting, refining and improving.  I plan to continue to do those things, but not out of fear of my critics, instead out of love for the flute. I would be pleased to attend Sir James’s class in Switzerland if circumstances permit. Sir James, does your invitation include a round-trip air ticket?!  I must warn you that I may be slightly above the age limit, if your class has one…

My credentials: In case you didn’t read this before I’ll say it again: I AM NOT JAMES GALWAY.  But I think there is room in this world for more than one flutist and flute teacher. If not, we are ALL in trouble! My bio is posted on my youtube profile page:http://youtube.com/profile?user=ninaflute.  Some of you seemed to think I am a “young” flutist, perhaps it is my girlish appearance, ha ha, but I have been playing flute 27 years, teaching for 15.  I hold BM, MM, and DMA degrees in flute performance from the top ranked US music institutions, I studied 2 years at the Paris Conservatory, I won this prize and that prize, played in this orchestra and that chamber group. I have performed here and there...blah blah you can read all about it.  But the real reason I posted my performance videos is so that those will serve as my credentials. If you don’t like my playing YOU SHOULDN’T WATCH MY TEACHING VIDEOS!  I do however urge you to watch my performance videos with an open mind and form your own opinion.  

I will provide here a list of flutists I have studied with or observed in masterclasses to show you that in my 27 years of study I have made it my passionate search to be exposed to as many ideas and styles/schools of playing as possible (I am probably forgetting some).

Primary Tecahers
Brad Garner, Jack Wellbaum, Sophie Cherrier, Alain Marion, Leone Buyse, Keith Bryan, Nancy Waring, Phil Dikeman, Michel Moraguez

Masterclasses performed in
Julius Baker, Goran Marcusson, Randy Bowman, Carol Wincenc, Andras Adorjan, Raymond Guiot, Trevor Wye, Jean-Michel Tanguy, Catherine Cantin, Jim Walker

Masterclasses observed live
James Galway, Jill Felber, Amy Porter, Marina Piccinini, Paula Robison, Michele Marasco, Emmanuel Pahud

Other lessons/coachings
Andre Papillon, Lise Daoust, Jeff Zook

Teaching Content:
Now I really have a lot to say! 

First, let me say that I sincerely believe that there is more than one correct way to play the flute. If not, we would all sound alike. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, indeed unquantifiable variations of sound and color. The “perfect” flute sound is essentially a matter of taste—tastes that vary by era and region as we all know.  I have read all your comments about this embouchure and that position and to all of them I say “you are right!” If that is the way you play and you get the sound YOU desire, then it is correct.  I was a little concerned by some comments in the posts that seemed to suggest there are absolute TRUTHS in flute teaching. Do you REALLY believe that? I do not, perhaps it is a reflection of the names I listed above—all wonderful flutists, all play and teach and sound differently.  For this reason I encourage my students to take lessons and masterclasses with other flutists.  There may be a set standard for how to play like Rampal, but another for how to sound like Gilbert, another for Baker, etc. and eventually there will be a way to sound like YOU. At a certain point, a musician needs to make a decision about how he wants to sound, understand the techniques to achieve that sound, and master it.  A musician with an open ear and heart understands that flutists can sound different from himself and still be beautiful.

I see the role of a student as follows: the young student takes his/her teacher’s methods and applies them dutifully.  The mature student takes his/her teachers’ instruction and experiments with it using his own ear as the guide.  The young professional takes all he has learned and heard and makes it his own.

I also believe that for any one concept there are thousands of ways to describe that concept to a student! Each student perceives and applies instructions differently especially as teaching flute is so inherently difficult given that most of it occurs inside our bodies. 

I teach the way I play. I cannot teach the way someone else plays although our playing may have similarities. I explain my playing the way I find it to be most helpful to me and my current/past students. In many cases, the end result may be the same as what someone else explains differently.  For instance, some of you describe me as “young.” I think of myself as “not so young.”  A high school student might consider me to be “old.”  We are all talking about the same person but from different perspectives!

My videos are NOT meant to replace a private teacher! They are meant to give the viewers some new ideas to try and then explore with their teachers, and to inspire them to love the flute and practice harder! (more on this later)…However many flutists have written to me who do not have the option of private lessons (some from very far corners of the world), and they are SO HAPPY to have some new ideas to try in the practice room.

One post criticized me for addressing my comments to students and not colleagues. Hmmm, well guess what? I am addressing my comments to students!  These videos are not intended for use by professional flutists, they are for the flutists who struggle because they have tried everything their teachers say and have reached a plateau beyond which they cannot progress.  IF IT AIN’T BROKEN, DON’T FIX IT.  BUT IF IT IS BROKEN, FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T KEEP DOING THE SAME THING THAT DOESN’T WORK OVER AND OVER.  

OK, so let’s talk about sound production!

These videos are meant to address the most common problems of young (high school or early college) players, many of whom have been playing little else than marching band music for 4 years. As Jen said in her post, most young players have a too tight, smile embouchure -- with the flute high on their lip and with the hole almost entirely covered!  My method addresses these problems just as Jen’s youtube videos do.

I was surprised when many of you said my video contradicts Galway’s videos, as I have always felt my approach was influenced by his, so this morning I again watched all his youtube masterclasses! And guess what?  Although there is some variation in explanation or presentation, the overall concepts are very similar, as Roland noted in one post.  So here it goes:

SJG (Sir James Galway) shows us that he covers about 50% of the hole, as far as I could tell from the video. I agree. My explanations to roll out are because most younger students cover significantly more than 50%.  SJG does not advocate rolling out, but I think this is probably because he already has his flute in the proper position on his chin (I know this is true because I could see the flexibility of his bottom lip in the video which isn’t possible if the flute is too high).  The students I see are placed so high on the chin/lip they need to drop the flute first so that it is in a SJG position, and then roll it out just to get it to the 50% mark that SJG has. I sometimes even say uncover as much as 75% of the hole—remember that the difference between 50% and 75% is a millimeter. The student and teacher should use their ears to find the right amount for that student based on where they get the best sound. 

SJG does not at first suggest blowing into the flute but suggests more blowing across the hole, then as you move into the lower registers he suggests you blow more into the flute. My video encourages blowing into the tube and I do not believe it contradicts SJG at all. Most young students were initially taught the coke-bottle method where ALL the air goes across. This is a disaster in my opinion. My method corrects this by angling more of the air into the flute for resonance. In part 7 of his masterclass, SJG says not to roll out because he wants more air going INTO the flute. I agree again. I think we are perhaps just starting from different points with our goal really very much the same. 

SJG suggests getting the proper placement by experimenting with the headjoint only, as do I.

SJG advocates having the lower lip over the top lip and I absolutely agree! Again, if the player has the flute too high on his/her chin, he will crush the lower lip.

SJG says the smile embouchure is not good, and I suspect we all agree on that. My method allows for relaxing the smile muscles and bringing the embouchure forward. Jen’s videos also discuss this well.

SJG explanation of where vibrato originates is consistent with mine. His exercise is interesting.  I’ll try it!  Others on this forum have very different views. If what you are doing works for you and gives you the result you desire, then that is the “correct” way for you.

I suspect SJG will disagree with my breathing video as do many of you -- and as I rather suspected and say so in my video. I can only say after many years of trying other ways and never feeling satisfied, this technique has consistently worked well for me and allowed me to sustain a long line without having to sacrifice sound quality. I think the real issue is what SJG said so perfectly in his masterclass part 8 on breathing: “When you see it doesn’t work, change it!”  My technique is not intended to be used by someone who has already found a breathing solution that works for him/her. Again: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! It is for the frustrated student who has tried all the other methods and still is not having a good result, and frankly I see this frequently on the subject of breathing.  I say, try it sincerely for one week, if it doesn’t work for you, go back to your old way. If you feel an improvement, great!  I believe in it for me. There is always the possibility that what feels to my body like “holding in” the abdominals may actually feel to someone else’s body like “relaxing” or “expanding,” i.e. different ways of verbalizing the same phenomenon.  I can’t say since I can only describe my own body…


I guess I should discuss my last issue, my teaching style, in another post because I need a break and you probably don’t want to read another word of this! Andrew, I have made your posts look brief!

Your friend,
Nina Perlove

Subject: [Galway-Flute-Chat] Re: Praise to Nina - Selfconfidence
Date: May 30, 2007 12:52:44 PM EDT

Hello flute friends:
Thank you for the many messages I have received from you on this forum and through personal emails in response to my recent post. I think we have all had a lot to think about, including the kind of flute community we want to be.

I hope you all read Uberto’s post “Praise to Nina” in which he eloquently wrote: “the one most important thing we must teach our student is : self confidence. Build someone's self confidence and he/she will be able to climb a mountain.” 

This is a beautiful introduction into the last issue I wanted to address with you: my teaching style.  It seems that some of you were aghast that my teaching style is so…confident, and were even offended that I used terms like “trust me.”  In this light, I would like to share with you my views on the role of a private music teacher so you may better understand how it contributes to my “confident,” even “didactic,” approach. 

The relationship between music teacher and student is complex, delicate, and at times magical.  I wonder if any of you have read my heart-felt, tear-stained, memorial to Alain Marion published in the Flutist Quarterly following his death?  I think it sheds light on the enormous impact he had on me, indeed all of his pupils.

On the most superficial level, the role of the teacher is to instruct, to provide the basic information the student needs to progress.  The one-hour-a week lesson is the time when this information is exchanged.  But it is not primarily during this one-hour session that the progress is actually made. The progress takes place in the practice room.  How does the student get to the practice room and stay in the practice room? Through motivation and inspiration. 

I believe an equally, perhaps more, important role of the teacher is to motivate and inspire their students to practice, a lot!  If this ability is lacking in the teacher than the quality of information is irrelevant.  So how does the teacher motivate a student? First, the teacher must be him/herself confident that the information he is transmitting is effective.  If the teacher doesn’t even think his approach will be successful, why in God’s name would the student want to spend hours testing and mastering it in the practice room?  The student must trust the teacher and the teacher’s methods in order to apply them whole-heartedly.  The student must also trust that if after sincere effort the method has not given suitable results, the teacher will continue to explore to find an eventual solution.  Trust is key to motivation.

Would my videos have been more effective if I had said “I’m not really sure if this will work, it probably won’t, you can try it if you want, or you could just spend your evening at the pub.” ?

My goal is to get students excited about practicing something new and the many emails and comments I have received from my youtube audience have shown that I have been successful in that goal.

I also believe that confidence is contagious and the greatest gift a teacher can give a student is the gift of confidence.  Confidence, not arrogance. True, there are many teachers who disagree and prefer the approach of tearing a student down as a means of motivating them to work harder. This works for some personalities of teachers and students, but it is not the teaching approach for me.  In any event, even with the tear-down approach, it is still critical that the teacher be a solid source of confidence.

I work to build up a student’s confidence first of all because it makes her a better player. The student needs confidence to trust her own ear so that she can progress in the practice room. If the student is filled with self-doubt, she won’t be self-assured enough to say, I’ve got it! When she finally hears a note of progress in the practice room.  And we all know how important confidence is in performing. As a student’s confidence grows, he makes less errors in performance and can allow his preparation and genuine expression to be heard.

You have already seen the long list of flutists I have studied with and observed. All of them exude confidence, not least of all Sir James Galway. These are my role models.

When Alain Marion died it was not his instruction in finger placement or embouchure position I mourned, it was his contagious passion for music that is still alive in me to this day. That is the kind of teacher I aspire to be. That is how I want to be remembered.

Your friend,
Nina Perlove